Rabid fanboys and Twitter trolls are the worst. They ripped into Adam Wingard’s new film, Death Note, before they had seen a single frame of Netflix’s live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga series by writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrator Takeshi Obata. After having seen the film, I wish I could report that they are categorically wrong. Instead, I’ll simply point out that they are wrong by a matter of degree. Death Note isn’t an outright disaster. It just isn’t nearly as good as it should have been.
The premise is simple. Light Turner, an American high school student, comes into possession of an ancient ledger. Accompanying the ledger is a demon of sorts. Any person whose name you write in the ledger will die in the time and manner you specify as engineered by the demon. If you refuse to use the ledger, it will be bestowed on someone else, but they may very well write your name in the book to tie up loose ends. So, Light finds himself in a bit of a dilemma.
One of the problems with the film is Light wrestles with this moral issue for about thirty seconds before he starts killing people by the dozens. His motivations for doing so are nowhere to be found. We understand his first two murders, and then the story spins wildly out of control, morphing from a small-scale Final Destination knock-off into a comic book film about global terrorism, shadowy government programs and genetically-engineered detectives.
Much like The Dark Tower adaptation released earlier this month, Death Note tries to cram thousands of pages of the source material mythology into a 100-minute film. It simply can’t be done. The film plays like its in perpetual fast forward. There’s no time to flesh out the characters, their relationships and motivations because we have so much ground to cover in so little time. The end result is a film that has many interesting ideas that are half-formed and thrown away, leaving behind a paper-thin narrative populated by characters we don’t really care about.
Death Note simply doesn’t know what it needs to be. Is it a horror film? With the director of You’re Next and The Guest at the helm, you’re inclined to say “Yes”. Or is it a comic book film? With it’s crazy mythology and a teen protagonist suddenly endowed with “powers, you’re inclined to say “Yes” to that, too. The film swings wildly from bursts of gonzo violence to a flimsy teen romance. Death Note could’ve been a great one-off horror film or a hyper-violent deconstruction of comic book films. Instead, it’s a little bit of both while never fully committing to either.
The fatal flaws of the film lie in the screenplay. It simply fails as an adaptation. There’s no hiding the fact that Adam Wingard is a talented filmmaker, and everyone who’s already bashing his Godzilla v. King Kong project should zip it until they see the actual film. Death Note has some gorgeous shots in it and features the kind of kinetic comic book-style editing that the bloated Marvel films would benefit from. From its extreme close-ups and tilted frames to its neon-drenched night scenes, Death Note jumps off the screen. The audience is just left wishing that it was leaping somewhere more interesting than where it ultimately lands.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.